Lawless is one of those period pieces — one with old-time gangsters with a western flavor — where the bad guys (the lawbreaking bootleggers) are the ones to root for and the supposed good guys (the cops) are the villains. It’s stylistically filmed from director John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition) and evokes memories from an era of days gone by.
Lawless is based on the true story of the Bondurant brothers, Howard (Jason Clarke), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Jack (Shia LaBeouf), who live in the mountains of Franklin County, Va. The family is thought to be somewhat invincible because Howard went off to war but returned home alive, and Forrest beat an almost deadly bout of the Spanish Flu that killed his parents. Jack is the youngest and has yet to be tested.
The rural area is knee-deep in poverty from the Depression, but the Bondurants have built a thriving local business — bootlegging moonshine. The only problem is that Prohibition is in effect, and their booming business is illegal.
Still, all is well until corrupt deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) comes to town from the big city demanding a little quid pro quo or else he’ll (permanently) shut them down. Most of the local folk comply, but the Bondurants are firm in their resistance, thus leading to a knock down, drag-em-out battle for control.
The 1930s Depression-era, rural Virginia setting felt authentic and appropriately unglamorous, though at one point LaBeouf refers to a car as being “souped up,” and I’m not quite sure how long that expression has been around, but I’m thinking it’s terminology.
The movie is rated R and for good reason. There are many violent killings, beatings and throat slittings. It was so unsettling that I even had to look away from the screen a few times. I did appreciate, however, that since the violence served a purpose, it wasn’t watered down to appeal to a broader audience.
LaBeouf definitely isn’t at the top of my list of favorite actors, especially after his subpar Transformers movies (did we really need three of them?), the forgettable fourth Indiana Jones movie and some of his minor brushes with the law, but I was somewhat impressed by his performance. The smarminess and insincerity I’ve felt from him in past roles seemed to be gone and he physically and emotionally transformed into his character quite well.
Hardy must have a knack for speaking unintelligibly, but at least I could understand him slightly better than his Bane character from The Dark Knight Rises. His character Forrest didn’t say much, but when he spoke, he almost always made an impact.
Pearce was an excellent villain. His character was completely despicable, and he played it expertly.
The estrogen component to the film was filled by Jessica Chastain, who played Forrest’s love interest, Maggie, and Mia Wasikowska as Jack’s love interest, Bertha (for some reason, I don’t image young, slender women being named Bertha).
Lawless wasn’t a movie that I was all that excited for or even anticipating prior to its release, and while it had some slow parts, I ultimately found it to be a satisfying viewing experience. ••
Movie Grade: B